Scripture: Isaiah 9:2–7
Sometimes, setting the context for a passage of Scripture is important.
Sometimes, that is easier said than done.
Take Isaiah 9, for example. Most scholars believe that this part of Isaiah was likely written around the same time as Amos, 800 years before Jesus, referring to events around the conflict with the Empire of Assyria. But then, later parts of the book suggest a much later context, closer to the time of Jeremiah, 600 years before Jesus, and scholars suggest that the book bearing Isaiah’s name is then a compilation of multiple “Isaiahs” from multiple timeframes. If that weren’t complicated enough, the book of Isaiah is referenced regularly throughout the Gospels, adding another layer of meaning and context for us as Christians reading the book. So, in what context should we read today’s passage? Some believe the best answer is “all of the above,” recognizing this complex soup of meaning and purpose and references and context.
But another option is “none of the above.” Scholars Amy Robertson and Robert Williamson suggest that one way to read this passage is to see it less as a prophetic oracle about one specific time and place, and more like a psalm, timeless and universal. I like the suggestion. Think about the Psalms, the collection of poetic, prayerful, even musical lyrics describing the life of faith. What if we heard today’s passage with this same timeless quality of a psalm, as a prayer of our hearts before a Holy God? Let us hear God’s voice in a new way, in the poetic psalm of Isaiah 9….
I run in the dark for fun.
Let me clarify what I mean by that. What I don’t mean is that running in the dark is fun. It is actually more than a little terrifying. Even with a headlamp or runners flashlight, it is hard to see rocks or roots or variations in the terrain, making it really easy to take a wrong step or trip over something that you would usually see in the daylight. However, long trail runs, like the Blue Team tackles a couple times a year, requires some running in the darkness…either early in the morning or into the evening, or both. Similarly, I have talked often about the experience of hiking in the early morning darkness in order to make it to the top of a mountain and back to tree line before the afternoon storms roll in. Walking and running in the dark are not goals in and of themselves, and aren’t all that fun, but in order to experience the joy of a mountaintop or a trail ultra, it means a walk in the dark.
Today’s passage in Isaiah begins with people walking in darkness. But they weren’t doing it for fun. No part of what they were doing was recreational or joyful. In that context, walking in darkness meant danger. And vulnerability. And anxiety. A lot different than my experience of running in the dark for fun! In that context, if you were walking in the dark, you had to have a very good reason for it, and it probably meant a level of desperation, and not recreation. Here at the beginning of this prayerful poem, Isaiah is using a metaphor to help his readers imagine the experience of exposure and danger and vulnerability. Travelling the dark meant all of that.
But that’s only the first metaphor he uses. Hebrew poetry is known for its parallelism. The Psalms and Isaiah and Proverbs are all filled with these parallel lines of poetry that basically say the same thing, in different forms. Multiple metaphors with the same intent. So in the first several verses of today’s passage, there is this mixed metaphor of three parallel experiences:
- After the metaphor of travelling in the dark, the poem talks about farming. If you have ever farmed, you know that it, too, is an experience of vulnerability. So many things can go wrong: not enough rain…or too much rain…or too many dangerous bugs or animals. A farmer doesn’t really feel comfortable in the middle of the season, because there are still too many things that could happen to lose the crop. It’s like walking in the dark.
- Finally, the third metaphor is war. Most of us don’t know the experience of living through a war in our own community, living in the vulnerability and chaos of that situation. But too many in our world today and throughout history have known that pain all too well. Living under the threat of violence, never sure when the enemy will come, or when you will lose someone you love. It is terrifying…like walking in the dark.
So, taken together in a big collection of mixed metaphors, the poet-prophet seems to be making a comment about vulnerability. And anxiety. And the experience of living on the edge. Like someone forced to walk in the darkness without lights, or living under the pressure of an unharvested crop, or in the exposure of the experience of war, there is danger and desperation and vulnerability and fear.
Anyone able to relate?
All of us able to relate?
Tod Bolsinger, who I referenced last week as well, names the experience of exposure and chaos that we have faced in the US in these last few years. In a Zoom meeting with the author a couple of weeks ago, Bolsinger talked about the experience of 1918, where the United States suffered a pandemic-level flu outbreak that led to an experience of significant medical crisis. Next, he referenced 1929, and the Stock Market crash, and the economic crisis that it caused for the entire country. Finally he referenced 1968 and the cultural crisis of our country, reckoning with race inequity and injustice. Bolsinger then he pointed out that we are dealing with all three crisis-level events…at once! With a global pandemic and medical crisis, exacerbating and already bad economic situation before the pandemic, matched with a cultural reckoning about race and violence and injustice that erupted around George Floyd’s murder and other acts of violence. All three of these crises are taking place at the same time!
Talk about an experience of danger and desperation and vulnerability and fear! I think it is fair to say that many of us have been living through a season much like the vulnerable farmer, or the person forced to travel at night. Of course, many of us are somewhat insulated from the most damaging impacts of these crises, but none of us are unaffected. And I would suggest that most of us could name some level of anxiety or fear or anger or frustration caused by these crises in the last couple of years. We understand this experience of vulnerability and exposure to danger, all too well.
But look at what the poet does with these metaphors. In each case, desperation is answered by word of hope.
The poet speaks of the end of war. On my first read, I didn’t love the part about the plunder of war. It sounds like greed and violence run amok. But then I read with through the lens of Hebrew poetry, and I saw the parallelism, and realized it was less about the greed and destruction of war as it was about the ending of war. In fact, the next couple of verses declare joy of the burning of boots used in battle, and the burning of bloody garments used for war. They are no longer needed, for there is cessation of violence. Where there was once despair, now there is hope.
The poet speaks again about the farm. Look at his metaphor of hope: “Joy at the harvest!” As soon as the crops are up and dry, there is celebration. Think about how many harvest celebrations there were in ancient Israel…even our Thanksgiving is a vestige of the day when finally the harvest was done and the feasting could begin. In a world where we have 365-day grocery stores, we might not understand the experience that is the harvest…of vulnerability abated, of anxiety ended, of potentiality becoming actuality. But for the Ancient Israelites, harvest was a symbol of hope.
And finally, the poet rejoices that those who walked in darkness have seen a great light! There is this moment when you are hiking or running the dark, when it starts to get light outside. Eventually it gets light enough that you can start to see the hazards before you trip on them. Light enough that you can see where you are going. And finally light enough that you realize that you don’t even need your headlamp anymore. That seems to be what the poet is talking about here. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness, there is now a great light. The vulnerability has abated for the day. The danger is now over!
Now, let me clarify what the poet is not talking about; throughout the history of the Christian church, largely influenced by European leaders, there has been a subtle move from the metaphor of darkness as vulnerability, to somehow suggesting that darkness and blackness are inherently evil, including people with darker-skinned bodies. We know the disastrous results of this heresy: the argument by Christians that those with lighter-skinned bodies are somehow better than those with darker skinned bodies, followed by overt racism by many Christians that devalues people of color, and even leading to a re-creation of Jesus from a dark-skinned Palestinian to a white European. In our language of darkness and light, this Advent, and every Advent, we must be careful to clarify that Isaiah, who was also likely a dark-skinned Palestinian, was not talking about darkness in terms of melanin, but in terms of uncertainty and vulnerability. Isaiah’s message here is not that some people are better than others, but that all of us universally need the good news that fear is overcome by hope.
Isn’t that the good news that we need to hear today?
These metaphors of hope, layered throughout the passage, provide beautiful and rich images for how God restores God’s people. But take a closer look…did you notice what tense the verbs are in? It sure sounds like all of these things have happened in the past! So, we scratch our heads a little about what the timeline of these events was about…when exactly did these symbols of hope take place? But another element of this prophetic poetry is what is sometimes called “prophetic past.” The prophets would often name things in past tense, even though they hadn’t happened yet. And they did this because they were so certain of God’s healing power, so trusting of God’s impending justice, that they could go ahead and say that these things had already happened in the past tense. The poet proclaims that God is so eternally loving and caring and gracious, that the ending of all of this uncertainty and volatility is guaranteed. So it is very possible that the poet and his community were still living through all of this terror and fear, and yet the poet calls them to believe so fervently that God would deliver them, that they could go ahead and describe that hope with past tense verbs.
Could we be as certain as the poet, that these possibilities are so certainly going to become actualities? That after our chaos and vulnerability and anxiety and fear, God will bring healing. That after our volatility and uncertainty, that God will bring stability. That after our grief, that God will bring transformation. Can we name that future hope as an already completed past tense?
Frederick Buechner suggests that we can. He writes the following about the life of faith:
I think of faith as a kind of whistling in the dark because, in much the same way, it helps to give us courage to hold the shadows at bay. To whistle in the dark isn’t to pretend that the dark doesn’t sometimes scare the living daylights out of us. Instead, I think, it’s to demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that not even the dark can quite overcome our trust in the ultimate triumph of the Living Light.
Which finally brings us to our final verses in the passage:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness (mishpat and tzadiqah!)
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Here is the ultimate hope. The hope that is timeless enough to matter to those who lived 800 years before Jesus, and 600 years before Jesus, and 2,000 years after Jesus. For those of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord, we see the ultimate revelation of that hope in that dark-skinned Palestinian baby laid into a manger by his mother. For those of us who proclaim Jesus and Lord, we see the ultimate experience of hope that even in the midst of our chaos and our vulnerability and our stumbling and our fear, there is a God who is at work in the world, who has already completed the endless peace and justice and righteousness that has been promised. For those of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord, this season of Advent waiting means that whatever confusion and uncertainty that we face, we can know with the passion of the poet, that God is with us. And that is what it takes to whistle in the dark!